Beijing On One Wheel

A wobbly journey into the heart of China.
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“Riding a unicycle is good for old people in China. Lots of them fall down while walking.”

At sixty-two, Lun Meihua was determined to avoid such a fate. She had ridden for a few months now. The weather was sunny, so she fixed a magenta umbrella atop her head like a mushroom. Then she unicycled away, mushroom hat fading into the distance.

It was my first day on a unicycle in Beijing. After years riding one of a million bicycles in China’s capital, I decided to make a bold addition to my transportation options. A Chinese hiking partner of mine, who once led me down a train tunnel in total darkness, called it a stupid idea. I considered his warning, ignored it, and found a website called the China Unicycle Forum. One post caught my attention.

Beijing: Unicycle hobbyist meet-up every Sunday.

Our Beijing unicycle hobbyist activities together are over a few years old, and now we have over ten unicyclists interacting together. This year we have a designated space. Everyone come and play together!

The designated space was a small park behind a massive shopping mall. Scheduled to last until eleven, I showed up at 8:30 on a Sunday morning, the last person to arrive. The head hobbyist Old Zhou met me at the nearest subway stop. Loose athletic capris hung from his waist, and the roundness of his face mirrored his belly. He was fifty-nine and wore a green knock-off Adidas T-shirt that read “Beijing Juggling.”

He greeted me on a bicycle and gave a firm handshake, suggestive of a Chinese accustomed to dealing with foreigners. When I asked, he told me he had just returned from a European juggling convention in France, his first time traveling abroad.

“Can you ride?” he asked.

“Yes, but– ”

“Then let's go, it’s not far.”

I wondered why, if it wasn’t far, he rode a bike.

***

I hadn’t ridden in years. My unicycle’s wheel axle was slightly warped, which caused the tire to scrape the frame and tip my balance left. I hoisted myself up with a wobble and started pedaling, tilting a bit from the deformed axle.  Because they lack gears, unicycles don’t go very fast–the speed at which you pedal is the speed you’ll go. Old Zhou didn’t pay much attention to this fact. He insisted on leading, and I exerted everything I had to keep up.

“Don’t be anxious,” he said.

That was hard. When I caught him, he pedaled faster, leading to an exponential speed increase that was unsustainable.

“Can you slow down a bit?” I pleaded.

“Your Chinese is very good!” he said. I appreciated the compliment, but that was his only response to the question. He didn’t slow down.

I poured sweat and flailed my arms. Old Zhou chatted leisurely. Passersby on the sidewalks gawked at our session of international unicycle speed training gone amok.

“We sometimes have some of your foreign friends come,” he said, looking straight ahead. “One is French. He is very good. The other one is German, and he’s the best. Germans are all very good unicyclers.”

This was all it took, in retrospect; I suddenly felt pressure to outperform France and Germany, and stopped asking him to slow down. When the mall’s parking lot came into view, I was relieved to see two barrier gates, leaving me no choice but to jump off and walk through the pedestrian entrance. My legs burned–we had traveled just under a half mile.

Eleven unicycle enthusiasts attended the gathering; two were missing. Old Zhou said it was too bad Old Liu couldn’t come today because he was really very good, and he would make sure I could see him next time. They insisted I guess each person’s age upon introduction, a task that I woefully failed.

The unicyclists rode back and forth across a long, tiled path cutting through the park. The hobbyists ranged in age from 13 to 75, and over half were retired. In the middle of the path, bags of juggling equipment lay scattered on the ground–balls and clubs, spinning plates, Chinese yo-yos, devil sticks and other clowny accoutrements. The space didn’t look designated. Unicycles were strewn, saddles in every direction, like battlefield casualties. A small boom box behind the juggling gear blared Peking Opera.

Old Sun brought the boom box every week. The seventy-five year-old carried a stern face and was one of the longest tenured and most talented riders in the group, able to hop a unicycle in a stationary position. But he didn’t spend much time on the unicycle, preferring instead to wander around the premises smacking zhu banr, hand-sized bamboo sticks that clicked and clacked against one another, as accompaniment to the Peking Opera. When he wasn’t providing unicycle ambience, he sat on a miniature stool and folded balloon animals, handing them out to children tottering by with stunned parents. Old Sun had been Old Zhou’s first unicycle recruit in 2005. They met in a local park, as Old Sun took his morning run and Old Zhou rode his morning unicycle. He learned to ride quickly.

Together they averaged sixty-six years old, and, when they met, Old Zhou had been riding and juggling for a year. He was inspired to ride after watching a television program featuring a game of unicycle basketball in Australia. Last March, he landed on television himself, featured riding unicycles with Old Sun and Mr. Liu on a Beijing Sports Television program called “A Bucket of Happy Exercise.” Our club was featured again this January.

After their first TV appearance, talent recruiters came calling. China abounded with these companies, which were often contracted by shopping centers to recruit local performers like Old Zhou to entertain and attract customers. Old Zhou performed often, earning up to a couple hundred yuan per gig.

Most people in the group had discovered unicycling as Old Sun had, by running into Old Zhou or seeing him perform. He was happy to train anyone who wanted to learn, and many in the group referred to him as Teacher Zhou. Other unicyclists periodically joined us from the Chinese unicycle underground, happy to have finally found comrades-in-arms after teaching themselves. Little Yi, the youngest member, had learned eight years ago as a five-year-old. She had won multiple awards as a youth rollerskater, and her mother was a well-known coach. Upon seeing a unicycle poster on Beijing’s largest shopping street, her mother decided a unicycle was the perfect training tool for Little Yi and immediately bought one online. She believed the most crucial period for a child’s sense of balance began at age five.

I felt a kinship with Little Yi–it had taken her three months to learn, almost exactly the same time it had taken me as a child. My parents had bought my first unicycle then as well, after I learned to ride a bike without handlebars. Little Yi rode her unicycle peacefully and deliberately, stopping every now and then to wing it around in a circle. For the last two weeks, Little Yi had been teaching her mother to ride. The two of them wore identical safari hats of blue and white stripes, drooping off to the side, as they pedaled down the path. On other meetups, they wore matching camouflage-print.

Across the park, Mr. Li, a local Chinese yo-yo champion, whipped three yo-yos around his back in different directions. Riding in place in front of me was Little Ben, who actually wasn’t little at all, with ripped muscles visible beneath an orange mesh shirt and baggy basketball shorts. In his mouth he bit a whistle and blew out birdcalls in various notes, a clashing accompaniment to the Peking Opera shrieking from the boombox. Later, he invited me to a weekly African drumming circle in a nearby park. He worked as an accountant at a shopping mall during the week.

After a long debate between Old Sun and Mr. Li about the proper height for my seat, I rode down the path a few times. Lun Meihua caught up to me. She motioned for me to grab her hand, and we pedaled down to the other end of the park, a formation that challenged a rider’s control in order to stay parallel.

“My daughter is in your America’s California studying.”

“That’s good,” I said, “It’s very pretty there.”

“Extremely pretty. Your America’s cities are all very nice. I’ve been to a few.”

“Which ones?”

“New York, Washington D.C., Boston, and a town near the Niagara Falls.”

“I’ve never been to Niagara Falls,” I said. “There are a lot of tourists there.”

“Your president–Obama–he is always sending America to war.”

We were nearing a 180 degree turn, and this wasn't a topic I wanted to address on a unicycle. I tried shrugging and not responding.

“Isn’t that true?” she asked again. “Why is he always going to war?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

This didn’t satisfy her, so I tried again.

“The two big wars,” I offered, “in Afghanistan and Iraq, he didn’t start those ones.”

“But he still hasn’t made them all leave yet!”

“That’s true.”

“He attacked Libya too!”

I shrugged again.

“And now he wants to attack Syria! You should tell him not to attack them.” She laughed and let go of my hand and patted me on the back. “He’s always meddling in other people’s business.”

We made the turn successfully and headed back to the pile of juggling equipment. I was thankful when the conversation turned back to the weather.

***

Old Sun handed a giraffe balloon to a small child. We were back at base camp where large groups of passersby had gathered to watch our display, younger observers with amused smiles and older Beijingers with frowns of utter confusion. It was one of the rare instances in which I didn’t stand out as a foreigner; a civic unicycle team had finally outdone my curly blonde hair and blue eyes. Around me, the hobbyists rode in different formations–circling around one another, riding under arched hands of riders, or unicycling backwards. People shouted out words of encouragement, using nicknames that were all blog aliases from their online unicycle group. Chi Bao Dunr (“Sitting After Becoming Full From Eating”) preferred to photograph rather than ride. They called her “Full From Eating” for short.

Full From Eating flashed a group photo and it was time to leave. All the photos would be posted online by day’s end. Old Zhou had a “small performance” to attend to in a park on the east side of the city, and I left soon after.

As I waved goodbye to Old Sun, he said with a smile “Tell your Obama not to fight Syria!”

I said I’d try, and that I’d see them next week.

***

Old Zhang, the vice chairman of the China Unicycling Association, is a proud man. In Beijing’s outskirt town of Huairou, no child finishes elementary school without having had the chance to ride a unicycle.

“Now it’s mandatory in gym classes in every school there,” Old Zhang said, beaming. The small hamlet had produced some of China’s best unicyclers, who were plucked from elementary school gym classes and enrolled in sports schools to focus on their craft. Later that week, I received a text message from Old Zhang asking me if I had watched the opening ceremonies of China’s National Athletic Games, which had featured 220 children from a local elementary school on unicycles.

I had come to his office to chat, and also to buy a unicycle. He was in his fifties, jovial, and curious; his face was full of wrinkles, most of which seemed to be from smiling. He sat comfortably in his conference room.

He had sold Old Zhou his first unicycle in 2004. Nowhere else in Beijing sold them, he insisted, and if they did, they wouldn’t be nearly as good as the ones he could get for me, which had been made in Taiwan. A tiny sticker attached to the main shaft read “Officially Stipulated for Use by the China Unicycle Association of the General China Sports Administration.”

Huairou was famous for its Great Wall sections, and I’d hiked there many times. But never had the thought of a unicycle entered my mind atop a guard tower. Then again, I wasn’t as imaginative as the Vice Chairman, who had forever linked the Chinese unicycle to the Great Wall.

In 1992, Jack Halpern, a cofounder of the International Unicycling Federation, contacted Zhao Yanyang, a colleague of Old Zhang’s, to propose bringing the unicycle to China as sport rather than performance. Zhang was fascinated by Halpern, not only for his position in the IUF, but also because he was an Israeli linguist living in Japan. The American unicyclist Stephen Dressler, the first person said to have unicycled on the Great Wall, was involved in the campaign as well.

Zhang and Zhao agreed to organize China’s first international unicycle exhibition–a 10 kilometer unicycle “marathon” on roads around Huairou’s Mutianyu Great Wall in 1993. After seeing the competition, Old Zhang was sold on unicycling as sport. That year, the China Unicycling Association was born, with Huairou as ground zero. While Beijing was denied its bid for the 2000 Summer Olympics, Old Zhang won his own bid; Beijing hosted the tenth biannual World Unicycling Convention and Championships (Unicon) on the millennial.

Bizarre inquires never daunted Vice Chairman Zhang. They have always been part of his job description. He has three other titles within the government’s General Sports Administration–Board Chairman of the Beijing Golf Club, Board Chairman of the Sports and Education International Public Relationship Company, and, most importantly, the General Manager of the China International Sports Travel Company. The first two were subsidiaries of the travel company, which Zhang had worked for since the 1980s, that was charged with bringing “special” sports into China. “Special” was broadly defined as anything that was not obviously Chinese, or that hadn’t yet been established in the country. The company was essentially a travel agency that specialized in sporting events–promoting, organizing, and bringing people to them, particularly in China’s early reform years after the Cultural Revolution. They set up Beijing’s first golf course, led rafting trips, para-sailed, and organized China’s first hot-air balloon exhibition.

“This mountain-biking sport,” Zhang said, laughing, about another recreation he was tasked with promoting. “China has always had many bicycles, but they were implements for transportation. Chinese people would never have thought of going down a mountain on a bike!”

Recreational hiking followed the same logic. Zhang pointed out that Chinese people could always walk, but nobles and intellectuals in the dynastic period prided themselves on exerting minimal physical activity, and during the communist period physical labor focused on collectively producing things, like steel, to build a modern China. Exercise was for national strength, in the Cold War propaganda sense; only in the last thirty years had walking up a mountain become “interesting.” If there was a more appropriate symbol of China’s rapid reforms during the 1980s than Vice Chairman Zhang watching China’s first hot-air balloon exhibition, I couldn't imagine it.

Unicycle administration had also taken Vice Chairman Zhang around the world for international competition. One responsibility of the General Manager of the China International Sports Travel Company was facilitating cultural exchange, just like the Ping Pong Diplomacy of the Nixon years. The first Unicon World Championship that Chinese unicyclists attended was the 1994 competition in Minnesota. Zhang had especially enjoyed the 2002 event, in North Bend, Washington; he had watched games of unicycle hockey and seen summer skiing in the Cascades. In Seattle, he said, the ferryboat to the islands in Puget Sound was beautiful, and he loved “that big public market.”

Before I left, Vice Chairman Zhang handed me a mesh athletic shirt from the 13th Sichuan Shuangliu National Unicycle Competition. He waved to me as I rolled the unicycle down the hall and out the building.

“You can wear the shirt when you ride,” he said. “You will look professional.”

***

I didn’t play varsity sports in college, and I was never more than an average athlete. Varsity teams were tough to make at my high school, which won over half its league championships one year. My highest achievement was landing a role as a starting pitcher my senior year in “non-league” games, more like scrimmages, which didn’t show up in the standings. I was little more than an innings-eater, the garbage disposal of the pitching staff, and I probably set the record for walks in two games I pitched.

The only time I won an award for an athletic achievement was on a unicycle, but it wasn’t during a sporting event. Each year on Halloween, my high school organized a competition in which students dreamed up ridiculous costumes and walked across a stage to cheers, laughter, boos, or some combination of the three. It was as close as a prep school event would ever come to Amateur Night at Showtime at The Apollo. I dressed up as a clown and rode my unicycle across the stage to more applause than I’d ever receive as a non-league pitcher. I was thrilled.

After learning how to ride as a kid, I stopped doing it regularly when I grew older. Unicycles being unicycles, I never really needed it for anything. During my first years in China though, the thought of getting back on the seat had occasionally returned to me.

Mostly, the urge had to do with relieving stress. Living in China was filled with humbling experiences and could be emotionally taxing. Giving into their inevitability, usually humorously, is the only way to adjust–resigning to that loss of control, and then falling in love with that freedom. But, during my fourth stint living in the country, I was having a harder time. In particular, I didn’t enjoy freelancing in China for American media; editors in the U.S. were only interested in political problems–human rights, political dissidents, and air pollution–that were already covered heavily and deconstructed to exhaustion by blogging and reporting communities labeled “China-watchers.” Viewing China through that lens seemed like the equivalent of learning about the U.S. through cable news commentators. I liked writing about oddball cultural experiences, which I found more interesting, that were sometimes loosely connected to those bigger issues. While I’d learned to love China for its chaos, I wasn’t loving the way I was expected to cover it for an American audience.

But small victories counted, and that’s what getting up on a unicycle once a week became to me. If I was constantly humbled, at least I could prove my balance on something that was truly hard to ride, no matter where I was in the world or the circumstances that surrounded me. However small, it was the only act of defiance I had left, even if mastering the forces of gravity had nothing to do with overcoming China’s mysteries or western editorial bias.

From a technical standpoint, I also had room to improve. The first step of unicycle riding is learning to stay up, the second is starting without holding onto anything, and the third, which I’d never quite mastered, is idling. As with a bike, the faster a unicycle moves, the more stable and easy it is to balance, but, different from a bike, the unicycle affords the ability to pedal backwards. By idling–rocking back and forth - the rider can stay in one place. It’s also the hardest skill to learn of the basic three, due to the constant change in direction and lack of speed. I spent most of my time in our designated space trying to idle, yaoche, with Li The Chinese Yo-yo Champion. I improved in miniscule, almost imperceptible steps.

“Man man lai,” Li had told me, holding onto my shoulder. Take it slow.

***

After the meet-up, I had my wheel axle fixed. The curbside repairman, with his rickshaw toolkit, wasn’t fazed, the only person in Beijing not to stare that day. I held up the seat while he torqued the spokes to correct the tilt, spinning it a few times while his colleague chain-smoked with one hand behind his back, offering peanut gallery advice. After five minutes of tinkering, the wheel spun straight. I thanked him and left, and he returned to working on another bicycle.

By late afternoon I was exhausted. I had dragged my unicycle across the city via subway, where, at one point, a police officer refused to let me onto the train with it. A brief discussion about what kinds of “vehicles” were permitted on Chinese subways ensued. This wasn’t America, the policeman claimed, where I could carry whatever I wanted onto a train car. The matter in question was whether the unicycle was a close enough relative of the bicycle to merit exclusion. To show it needed little space, I stood the unicycle wheel between my feet and held it close to my body; I also mentioned that he was the first officer to express such concern. He let me pass and I boarded the subway to the stares of a packed car. I felt naked on the subway, then realized that, were I actually nude, I likely would have attracted less attention.

Riding in the bike lane confused pedestrians. In a city where people were accustomed to an enormous range of vehicular chaos, a unicycle still turned heads, whether because of the singular wheel or the foreigner riding it. I passed a migrant worker who sat in the typical position, squatting like a catcher with a cigarette in hand, watching the world go by. As I sped through, only his head rotated. A farmer passed me dragging a mountain of trash over ten feet high, including one large teddy bear, on the back of his motorized rickshaw. His stare registered the highest degree of bewilderment I’d ever seen.

I arrived early at Beijing’s central lakes, where I had promised Little Ben I would watch his weekly African drumming circle. Taking a seat next to the water, I rested the unicycle by my side as if it were a pet I had walked for too long. Most people passed without a glance–it seemed that only when a foreigner was atop a unicycle was the entire package worth examining. The first person to notice my strange belonging was a trash collector. He stopped and stared for a minute, mumbling and giggling to himself. I was too tired to initiate the conversation, so I waited patiently for the inevitable.

“This kind of vehicle,” he said, “requires a lot of balance.”

People gathered around me, as they do with car accidents in China.

“Can you turn it around in this path?” he asked.

I said yes, but he demanded proof. I was tired and didn’t want to get up. His request infected the group, and my audience began to echo his demand, another characteristic of crowds in China. I stood up, rode a ways, and barely turned around in the allotted space, almost falling. Sitting back down, people asked more questions, all of which I answered as quickly as possible.

“How long have you ridden?” I learned when I was small.

“Does everyone in America ride unicycles?” No, just a very small number. I considered mentioning that I’d heard Germans were the best, but I decided against it.

“You can talk about unicycles in Chinese!” I mentioned that “unicycle” was just one, very simple word.

“How long have you studied Chinese?” And with that, the standard conversation of first contact with a foreigner commenced. It lasted longer than the questioning about the unicycle, suddenly a bizarre sideshow rather than the main event. This was probably justified–it had taken me far longer to learn Chinese than it had to ride on one wheel.

After a while, drum percussion sprung up behind me, and everyone’s attention shifted. We walked over to the Chinese African drumming circle, its rhythms echoing across the lake, now surrounded by its own crowd of curious onlookers. I stood near Little Ben, my unicycle wedged between my shoes, and nodded along to the beat.  


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fast–the speed at which you pedal is the speed you’ll go. Old Zhou didn’t pay much attention to this fact. He insisted on leading, and I exerted everything I had to keep up.
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Chinese accustomed to dealing with foreigners. When I asked, he told me he had just returned from a European juggling convention in France, his first time traveling abroad.
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